Reaching to homelands

STORIES OF WAR never lose their power to shock, sadden and confront. Witnessing death and experiencing violence and atrocities creates traumatic memories. Indelible and unavoidable traces of these events are left behind – not just for those who witness them, but also for future generations. How these events and their effects are understood and discussed over time is a perennial challenge to those who experience them and those who attempt, long after, to fathom the enduring depths of past human violence.

The complexity of reconstructing, recapturing or representing acts of extreme violence in war has been well documented. Debates surrounding how such representations can or cannot be achieved have proven open ground for writers, artists, theorists and historians alike.[i] In one regard, however, there is agreement. War memories and legacies often haunt individuals, and the effects of this ripple out from these individuals to families and communities for decades after the episode occurred.

This being said, when we consider the legacies of war in Australia there is an aspect that remains largely unexplored. Australian history is dominated by stories of populations that have fled or migrated from war zones. The experiences of these migrant groups, and the place that war memories and stories have within their communities, are essential to understanding how war has helped to define their ethnicity, and that of their children.

There is a need for a broader understanding of both the history of those who have fled wars and their aftershocks, and how their experiences of conflict have been remembered. This would encompass a largely unexplored dimension of the impact of war in Australia. That is, the enduring trauma of intergenerational war experiences as stories passed on to subsequent generations, which move beyond their original homes and nations to inhabit new contexts and new meanings.

What has been the fate of these memories when people immigrate to another country where the culture, language and history of the host nation are foreign and unfamiliar, even hostile? In the great movement of peoples after the wars of the twentieth century, the place of war memories assumed varying significance. For some individuals, the need to forge a new future and forget the past was imperative. For others, the desire to remember drove the need to pass on their family histories. In attempting to explore war legacies in migrant populations, an ideal starting point can be found in the history of the Greek diaspora in Australia – one of the country’s largest migrant communities – and the lingering place of their war memories.

AT ONE LEVEL, these are deceptively simple notions. Existing scholarship on migration allows us to recognise the ways in which some groups have remembered and commemorated certain events – or at least how government authorities might have perceived them – and the specifics of past wars that migrants recall.[ii] But the actual effect of trauma, dispossession and repression on individuals, families and communities is often rather different from the literature. It’s much more than the official and symbolic; it relates to how individuals made sense of their lives in relation to their wartime experiences and, later, to the alien society in which they found themselves, and to how they have re-created themselves in these new environments.

World War II brought forms of war trauma and legacy to Australia in the soldiers who returned. But war trauma and its legacy were also transported with the arrival of Australia’s migrant population.

The influx of migrants post-1945 was unprecedented in Australia’s history. Immediately after the war, the Curtin Labor Government and the Chifley administration that succeeded it undertook an ambitious immigration policy to expand Australia’s population of seven million. The reason for this expansion had its genesis in Australia’s experience of the war. The possibility that Australia could have succumbed to a Japanese invasion brought home the fact that such a vast country had very few people to defend it. Many believed that, with such a low number of inhabitants, Australia would not be able to take care of its own national security and that increasing the population was imperative. There was also a clear need to boost and diversify the economy, most specifically through manufacturing and infrastructure, and large numbers of workers were required to provide labour for major projects and new industries. Only migration could supply a sufficiently large body of mature and skilled workers.[iii]

Despite this seemingly radical change in immigration direction following the war, Arthur Calwell, the minister for immigration, was determined that the arrival of new migrants would not challenge the principles of the entrenched White Australia Policy, which supported racial and cultural homogeneity. To ensure this, and to allay the fears of Australians about aliens and foreigners entering the country, Calwell had initially emphasised attracting British migrants. However, it proved difficult to obtain large numbers from just one country – it had always been unlikely that, of the seventy thousand immigrants required, most would come from Britain alone. The Australian government soon had to look further afield. After failing to attract migrants from Scandinavia, the government finally agreed to take twelve thousand Baltic refugees. They arrived between 1947 and 1951, and were joined soon after by 180,000 more displaced persons – ‘DPs’ or ‘reffos’ as they were disparagingly called – most of whom came from Eastern Europe. During this period, net migration to Australia was 450,000. British migration made up just under half of the intake, with an additional fifty thousand from Southern Europe, thirty-four thousand from northern Europe and seven thousand from Asia.[iv]

THIS POSTWAR GENERATION of newcomers was collectively distinct for two reasons: firstly, the sheer volume ensured a historical legacy; secondly, the high representation of people from southern Europe in the mix of those who arrived was unprecedented. These people made up the first wave of immigrants who brought a specific past with them, one that was hitherto unknown in Australia; that is, they had lived in a war zone. Migrants came with traumatic and often brutal experiences of war – not necessarily refugees themselves, but people for whom war and its aftermath was the decisive factor in their decision to migrate. Their experiences formed a significant aspect of their ethnic identity and were a fundamental part of their personal history.

The policy of assimilation that was in place at the time did not encourage public expressions of grief or loss over previous experiences, or emotional responses to the challenges of migration by those who arrived themselves. In a country where even local-born returned soldiers barely spoke about their experiences in conflict zones, war stories of migrants had little place in the new Australia of New Australians, and were viewed as best forgotten. Assimilationist policy was the cornerstone of postwar immigration policy, and it was based on a new identity that was to be built by relinquishing one’s personal past and one’s history. Effectively, the expectation of assimilationist policy that migrants would readily and seamlessly ‘adopt’ their new country aimed to construct a nation-building discourse by denying the past experiences of migrants that were, and are, central to the creation and maintenance of a collective identity and individual sense of self. This policy disavowed a multi-dimensional identity – one in which stories and identities from the past remained intact, but which could be integrated with new experiences. The assumption that the migrant would readily merge or be subsumed in Australian cultural life ignored the ways in which past narratives, stories and memories fundamentally shaped the self and sustained or enriched the act of renewal which is migration.[v]

This response is given example in the Greek communities. Mass migration took place to the US and Canada, but Australia attracted a significant number of Greek immigrants; at the time, their massive postwar migration was one of the largest in Australia’s history. In the thirty-five years between 1947 and 1972, the postwar immigration policy drew 214,304 assisted and non-assisted Greek immigrants to Australian shores.[vi]

THE CHILDREN OF Greek migrants formed their core selves through their family history of Greek involvement in the 1940–45 war, and the brutal Greek Civil War that followed until 1949. These children found themselves ongoing custodians – willingly or unwillingly – of the war memories of their forebears.

In interviews I have conducted with second-generation Greek adults, there is a tension in the two extremes of imparting war memories and past histories. For some this involves obsessively repeating stories; for others, refraining from telling children details of the past so as not to ‘contaminate’ them. This is a familiar tendency in several contexts.[vii] ‘Joanna’, a second generation Greek–Australian born in Melbourne in 1961, told me that it was within the intimacy of family relations that war experiences and trauma could be explored. She felt it was a matter of ‘bearing witness through these stories of [her parents’] trauma. In the safety of the home and familial setting these stories can circulate, find legitimacy, and be affirmed.’ War stories were central to framing her Greek identity, to understanding why the family migrated to Australia. She recalls how her mother speaks at length about the war: ‘The stories of Germans violently raiding villages for food, or of the devastating impact of bombings on families…or of cruel starvation and hunger during the wars filled our childhood imagination. Clearly she felt the need to speak and continue to speak about these experiences.’[viii]

For others, silence was a major theme in the legacy of war. ‘Peter’, whose family migrated in 1957 to a migrant hostel in Newcastle, discusses how he ‘grew up on the stories, on the war stories...[it] was kind of like a staple diet, always there in the background. When relatives would come over we would go over the same ground and once upon a time I could recount the stories, because Dad had a limited repertoire of stories.’ But the tales were selective, and the level of detail limited and specifics were vague. Overall, in Australia, his parents attempted to protect him and his younger brother from the ‘contamination’ of the past, and especially from the details of the brutal murder of his grandmother. He recalls: ‘It was never telling the children… When I was a young adult and I wanted him to tell me about the stories and he refused to tell me… Because he felt his whole life was about protecting us and he didn’t want us to be contaminated. In his mind that’s how he organised it, and he felt he didn’t want us to be contaminated by the politics of the time. He said they were the kind of things best left – left back there – he didn’t want to carry it into this country. But it would come out in terms of him saying things like “Never speak your mind”; “Don’t let anyone you know let people know what you actually believe”.’[ix]

‘Stephen’ was born in 1951 in Chalkis, and arrived in Australia in 1954. After his grandmother and pregnant aunt were executed by leftist guerillas, his father decided to leave Greece. He remembers how the war stories he grew up hearing defined his own identity as Greek, and his ‘Greekness’ in Australia. These have never left him and continue to define his own ethnicity: ‘[T]he degree to which I am framed by that history…it permeates me. It’s woven into me, my sense of who I am, so profoundly that I am intensely emotional about it… I am Greek. I am nothing but Greek… I am not Australian. The reason I am not Australian is that…in the most profound influences, the really emotional formation has been drawn from my relation to my mother and my father and the presence of their history.’

Stephen feared his father, particularly the intensity of his authority, which was shaped by the experience of war. His father served in the regular army in Greece and fought against the Germans. ‘He has grown in an environment where if you didn’t know how to deal with pain then you couldn’t cope with life.’ This violent past would break through in his language and in his demeanour: ‘One of the things my father used to say when he got very angry at me was “I will cut your throat”. I have observed the degree of control my father exercised over the intensity of his emotion and the way that can very easily lead to a physical expression and encounter.’[x]

The omnipotent ghosts of violent pasts are powerfully captured in Two Greeks (UQP, 2011), John Charalambous’ insightful, compelling novel about a boy in a Greek–Australian family growing up in the 1970s. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is the shadow that overhangs the story. Andy, the ten-year-old narrator, sees a photograph of a man killed in the street in Cyprus in 1955. The image stays with him, and he asks his mother about the role of his father, Harry, in the conflict:

‘Did Dad kill people?’ I ask. You give me a startled look.

‘In the war,’ I explain.

‘He was too young for any of that.’

‘I mean when they kicked the English out.’ Harry tells stories about Cypriot independence. He boasts that his brothers were freedom fighters.

‘They didn’t kick the English out,’ you correct me. ‘The English went of their own accord. And your father wouldn’t have the guts to fight anyone. When all that happened he was sitting on his backside here in Australia.’ I believe you. I have never heard Harry claim a central part.

‘But his brothers fought,’ I persist.

‘So he says.’

‘Would they have killed anyone?’

‘They blew up innocent women, I remember that. Soldiers’ wives. It was a disgrace.’

‘Dad’s brothers blew up innocent women?’

‘Not them personally. Their side. The terrorists.’

‘Maybe they meant to get someone else.’

‘They didn’t care who they got.’[xi]

IMPARTING STORIES OF past wars and the involvement of families is a theme in Eleni Frangouli-Nickas’ Athina and Her Daughters (Owl, 2009), which retells the stories her mother told her and her sisters. Many of these stories have a war theme, and capture the experiences of war. Fundamentally, they are of migration and the need to keep the many stories alive that describe a wartime experience.

Many of them are entertaining and evoke laughter. The following story, set in wartime Greece, encapsulates this humour in the most dire and desperate circumstances. Zoi tells the story as a young child, starving in Greece during the war and her desperation for food.

I just can’t stand it any longer! My stomach is hurting. We haven’t had bread now for days. But we’re not the only ones. Since the Germans came to the village, lots of people are going without bread… Our cousins from Athens are suffering more than us. They’re used to a better life in the big city. How can I ever forget the day I wanted to go to the toilet and found the door slightly ajar? I sensed that someone was in.

‘Who is there?’ I asked, but no response came from inside.

‘Open up,’ I said again, ‘I want to pee. Come out, quick.’ So, who comes out but my Athenian cousin Alexandra standing there with this half eaten huge slice of bread in her hand. She looks at me with terror in her eyes.

‘Please, don’t tell anyone, Zoitsa mou. I was so hungry. I went begging for bread and got this slice and I just couldn’t bear to share it with anyone.’

‘How can you eat,’ I say to her, ‘in this smelly toilet?’

But smell or no smell, I would have done the same. Her pitiful look makes me feel sorry for her. ‘Don’t worry,’ I say to her, ‘I won’t tell. Just give me half of it and I’ll forget the whole thing.’[xii]

War stories are central to Eleni’s Greek identity, to her family’s history and to her own identity negotiation and family story in Australia. They also enable her to look back not only with trauma and tragedy, but also with humour and wit. Writing allows her to recollect, record and frame the stories in ways that can be read and understood for her children and grandchildren. They are written with this use in mind, for these stories and memories shape a fundamental aspect of family history framed by war. Committing them to the page gives them a permanence that transcends the potential loss of memory of the details.

JUST AS THERE are families in which the stories of the past are told and retold, laid out and examined, there are also families where information about the past has been scant or nonexistent, or passed on in an indirect way. Some families have chosen not to say much at all about their violent war past or communicate the stories of how they came to Australia. These gaps and silences inevitably create their own presence and narrative, especially when they are around experiences of war. For the children of these families, they are no less affecting. However, war memories have sustained a presence in Greek communities as a way of forming identity or providing a backdrop to family history.

The Australian postwar policy of assimilation failed to take into account the trauma and tragedy of so many of its migrants. As a result, there was a limited place for the full range of war stories in the national narrative. The memories of those who directly experienced war continue to influence the Greek–Australian identities of their families. This legacy is an ongoing theme that informs the children of migrants in ways that are often unexpected. The preservation of these memories remains a challenge to current and future generations, as the wars of the twentieth century cast their shadows.



[i] The relationship between memory and war has been explored most comprehensively in relation to the Holocaust. For recent works see, Maree Louise Seeberg 2013, The Holocaust as Active Memory: The Past in the Present , Farnham, Ashgate; David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist 2012,  After the Holocaust: Challenging the myth of silence , Routledge, New York; Jakob Lothe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and James Phelan (eds) 2012, After Testimony: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Holocaust Narrative for the Future, Ohio State University Press, Columbus; Richard Crownshaw 2010, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature and Culture, Palgrave McMillan, Hampshire.

[ii] In relation to the Greek community see Loring Danforth The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World , Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995; Anastasios Tamis,

Jock Collins, (Sydney, 1988), p.20.Greeks in Australia , Cambridge, 2005.

[iii] Jock Collins, Migrant Hands in a Distant Land: Australia’s post-war immigration (Sydney, 1988), p.20.

[iv] Janis Wilton and Richard Bosworth 1984, Old Worlds and New Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, pp.22-23.

[v] Joy Damousi 2013, ‘“We are Human Beings, and have a Past”: The ‘Adjustment” of Migrants and the Australian Assimilation Policies of the 1950s’, Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 59, Number 4, 2013, pp. 501-516.

[vi] Nicholas Doumanis ‘The Greeks in Australia’ in Richard Clogg (ed) 1999, The Greek Diaspora in the 20th Century, St. Antony’s, pp. 58‐70. Dimitreas, Yiannis, 1998, Transplanting the Agora: Hellenic Settlement in Australia, Sydney, p.158.

[vii] Joy Damousi, 2013, ‘Legacies of war and migration: memories of war trauma, dislocation and second generation Greek-Australians’, in Niklaus Steiner, Robert Mason and Anna Hayes (eds) Migration and social inclusion in a transnational era, Routledge, London,p. 45.

[viii] Interview with ‘Joanna’ 23 September 2010, in possession of the author.

[ix] Interview with ‘Peter’, 18 March 2010, in possession of the author.

[x] Interview with ‘Stephen’, 7 May 2010, in possession of the author.

[xi] John Charalambous 2011, Two Greeks, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, p. 45.

[xii] Elini Frangouli-Nickas 2009, Athina and Her Daughters: A Memoir of Two Worlds, Owl Publishing, Melbourne, pp.52-53.

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